An Interview with Harry Plantinga, Founder of the Christian Classics Ethereal Library

An Interview with Harry Plantinga, Founder of the Christian Classics Ethereal Library
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This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Christian Classics Ethereal Library that was founded by Calvin College computer science professor Harry Plantinga. The library has grown over the years thanks to his work and a network of volunteers. It also has received wonderful endorsements from its users. We took this occasion to interview professor Plantinga and learn more about the CCEL.org. There is also a sneak preview of some improvements in the works. Worship leaders and musicians will want to note Hymnary.org and PreachingandWorship.org.

What is your vision for CCEL?

CCEL was born out of personal need. Twenty-five years ago now a family health problem led to a spiritual crisis. I found a copy of The Imitation of Christ on the Internet and read it. It was very helpful for me, but the edition I found was under copyright. I found a public domain printed version, scanned and proofed it, and put it on the Internet on a “gopher” site. Next, I read Augustine’s Confessions, and I spent an hour or so a day scanning and proofing it and preparing it to go online, and other books after them. In the next few months I discovered the “World Wide Web” and made one of the first thousand or so websites to distribute these books. The Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) was the result.

The mission of the CCEL is to make classic Christian books available around the world and promote their use. The slogan is “Bringing classic Christian books to life.” What started out as a hobby became a vocation; a handful of books became a reasonably-sized collection; and a few readers became millions. We have distributed many millions of books. We distributed thousands of CDs of books to individuals and institutions in the developing world where theological libraries are rare and Internet access is poor.

Are there any books you have said no to?

I’ve said no to many books over the years. Notionally, I’ve tried to select books that are “classic,” that inspire the love of God, and that have a history of changing lives. Of course, the result is just one guy’s opinion. However, we have also been adding books that are not necessarily classic but that are useful in other ways, such as patristics, biblical commentaries, and reference works. In order to be able to provide some special encouragement to readers to read the classics, we’ve been marking some of the books as “classic” and making it possible to search for classics. Currently 14 percent of the works—172 out of 1,256—are marked as “classic.”

What are some of the things you know now that you wish you knew when you started out?

Nothing lasts forever, and advertisements, subscriptions, and fees do not a healthy ministry make. Fifteen years ago it became apparent that the project as it was running (with me doing pretty much everything) was unsustainable. I decided that for sustainability and longevity the project needed employees and therefore revenue. So we hired staff, including Calvin College students as interns, and we added advertisements, subscriptions, and sales of products such as Kindle books, while maintaining free access to everything on the website in web format. We got grants and donations.

Today there are around 15 part- and full-time employees of the project and we have branched out into other areas of ministry including Hymnary.org and PreachingandWorship.org (described below). Funding is from advertising, product sales, gifts, and grants, including a current grant from the Lilly Endowment. These projects are thriving, reaching millions of people. However, traffic to CCEL.org has declined. I can’t help but wonder if it might not have been better to keep CCEL.org totally free and trust God to provide whatever resources were needed.

For the future, we are completely rewriting CCEL.org, internally calling the new version CCEL3. We’re eliminating subscriptions, fees, and other restrictions. We want to minimize distractions and hindrances and put the focus more directly back on finding and reading Christian classics. This new version should be released in a year or two.

Are there any books you wish you could add, but cannot?

Many. C.S. Lewis would be a prime example. Actually, I wish I could add newer, better translations of most of the books that are online. Even some older classics like The Way of a Pilgrim don’t have English translations that are old enough to be in the public domain. (Anyone want to make a new translation from the Russian and donate it to CCEL?)

This question highlights a fundamental limitation of CCEL: its financial model (free distribution) doesn’t work in a sustainable way for books that are still under copyright, for which copyright holders need some payment for usage. For the most part, that limits the project to older works. They still have great value, in my opinion, but mainly for people who are willing to read 19th- and early 20th-century works and translations.

What are some of the titles you plan on releasing over the next 12 to 18 months?

In recent years, we have been adding a limited number of volumes—maybe 50 per year. This is because it can take 10-40 hours to add a volume—proofreading, marking up the book to XML, installing, etc. The time adds up. Installing books for display as page images is much faster, since no proofing or markup is needed, but it doesn’t work well—the pages aren’t formatted correctly for most computer screens, let alone mobile devices. No one wants to scroll left and right, up and down on a page to be able to see all the text when it’s large enough to read.

With the CCEL3 revision we’re introducing a really cool technology that enables us to display page images of some books formatted correctly for any screen size. No scrolling around on the page is needed. You can even enlarge or reduce the font size of the text in page images. This will make it possible to add books quickly in a very usable, attractive format. It would enable us to add many more books.

We’re thinking again about our acquisition policy—what would make the site most useful? If it becomes possible to add books in much larger numbers, would that be an improvement? Should we try to become a comprehensive archive of valuable older Christian books? One idea would be to offer Christian publishers a way to put back-shelf, out-of-print works on the web in a usable and cost-effective fashion so that they can have a new life.

Will you share with us some of the other projects that you have been working on?

More than 20 years ago we added a few hymnals to CCEL.org. I think we had the first online hymnal, an edition of Southern Harmony. However, these hymnals weren’t easy to search or use. As a CCEL offshoot we developed Hymnary.org, which is now the largest index of hymns and hymnals, along with background information about hymns and hymn writers, suggestions for worship leaders, recordings, scores, hymnal page images, and more. It has almost 6,000 hymnals, perhaps a third of those ever published in the United States and Canada. It’s designed for worship leaders, hymn researchers, and the general hymn-loving public.

PreachingandWorship.org is a new website being developed in partnership with the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. It’s a place for preachers and worship leaders to quickly find high quality, curated resources for sermon preparation and worship planning.

We’re experimenting with new ways of using technology in these areas. In addition to the Kindle books and reflowables for CCEL, we have developed a new kind of score for hymns where users can transpose, make a large print or projection version, or make a trumpet or viola version which may require a different key or clef. We’ve developed hymnal apps for iOS and Android for three hymnals, including Lift Up Your Hearts. With PreachingandWorship.org we are using machine learning to improve the resource recommendations given to pastors based on user preferences including their own.

Hymnary.org is a database for worship leaders. What are some of the improvements you are working on?

In addition to normal additions, bug fixes, and user interface improvements, we’re looking into adding the second-most requested new feature: a worship planning component that can enable a congregation to plan worship services with multiple people, store resources such as scores, track the songs used, report usage to licensing agencies, and the like. We’re also trying to figure out how to add the most-requested feature, which is the ability to show texts and tunes that are copyrighted, not just those that are in the public domain. It’s a difficult problem because it involves license agreements with perhaps 10,000 copyright holders.

Do you use analytics? If so, what kind of information have you learned about CCEL.org and Hymnary.org?

CCEL has served 27.5 million users since 2007, when we started tracking with Google Analytics. There have been 230 million pageviews, the majority of which are sections of classic Christian books.

Hymnary.org has served almost the same number—27.3 million since 2008. The age groups with the largest numbers of users are 25-34 (34 percent) and 18-25 (28 percent). Users come from 225 countries and territories. Fifty-six percent are from the United States; 4,516 users were from Turks and Caicos Islands. Nearly half visit on mobile devices. The most popular time for a visit is Sunday morning at around 10 am.

That 10 am figure surprised us. People are using Hymnary.org during worship services. I’m not sure why—to get a large-print version of a hymn? To see the harmony when only the words are projected? Part of the goal of these projects is to see how technology fits into the Christian life. What works? Which uses are not such a good idea? Many people go to the web for all sorts of information and entertainment and spend considerable time there: there ought to be a Christian presence. It seems advisable to explore how technology can and should be used to best serve God and the church.

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